Blogs > Liberty and Power > What Fulbright Does and Doesn't Do

May 24, 2011 2:55 pm

What Fulbright Does and Doesn't Do

There are few programs as cost-effective as Fulbright-Hays in preparing graduate students for research and teaching in international studies.  Americans are not known for their competencies in Asian languages, or for their familiarity with cultural and political systems vastly different from their own.  The fact that we lack these skills has been pointed out, again and again, not just by academics but by business executives who find that America's diminishing competitive edge against countries like China is partly the result of the failure to educate American students in international studies. 

Can your grandchildren afford the $5 million it takes to support student fellowships each year?  The real question is, can they afford not to?  Given that the trade imbalance with China now runs to the hundreds of billions of dollars each year, it should be clear that we need to know more, not less, about competitor nations.  One hesitates to reduce the importance of cultural knowledge to dollar and cents, but if that's the only logic we can accept, then Fulbright comes out very much on top. 

Politically, too, Americans do not suffer from a surfeit of knowledge about Asia and Middle East.  Our actions there are frequently determined by what we think people in these regions ought to do, or ought to believe, with little or no understanding of the cultural and historical forces that shape their responses.  During the Cold War, it was accepted that Americans needed to know about the Soviet Union, and that the country needed people who were trained in Russian and area studies.  What was commonplace wisdom decades ago is now seen an expensive extravagance.  But has the United States become less involved in the world over time?  Or have our commitments and costs diminished?  Hardly.  Shooting ourselves in the foot through lack of training or expertise seems a poor way to advance or protect American interests.

Finally, the notion is that Fulbright is somehow involved in a "progressive" political agenda, or supports only the kind of research that contributes to this end, is preposterous.  In fact, the opposite is probably true, given that funding priorities used to be shaped by American defense needs.  Keep in mind that Title VI funds, for training in critical languages, has also been cut, and these have been used for decades to supply the United States with experts in the languages spoken in those parts of the world where American interests are most vital, or could be.  When the Soviets invaded Afganisthan, Carter was able to find only one linguist who spoke Baluchi, a state department official who had been trained with Title VI money. 

Penny wise and pound foolish:  that is the meaning of the cut to Fulbright funding.  We will regret that our funding priorities are shaped by people with an abiding faith in the principle that the less you know, the better. 

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